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Smart Cards: Interfaces for People with Disabilities

Dr John Gill
February 1996

Smart cards are increasingly being used in banking, telecommunications and public transport. A smart card can carry information that can be used to select an appropriate interface for an individual user. The cost of incorporating an alternative interface is often modest if done at the time of the designing the terminal.

The Saturn project is:

  • identifying the needs of disabled and elderly users in relation to smart cards;
  • examining the technical possibilities and economic constraints;
  • designing prototype adapted smart cards and terminals;
  • evaluating these systems with a cross-section of disabled and elderly users;
  • proposing appropriate standards and legislation.

As part of the Saturn project, interviews and discussion groups were held with elderly, visually disabled, auditory disabled, intellectually disabled and motor disabled (lower limb and upper limb) populations, as well as a control group of non-elderly non-disabled people. In the interviews, three major applications of smart card systems were covered: financial transactions, public transport and public Telephony. In the interviews, data were gathered about user characteristics, characteristics of the environment of smart card systems, technical system characteristics, and about usability and acceptability of smart card systems. In addition, data on technology usage and perceptions were gathered. Based on the data it was possible to specify user requirements for the design of smart card systems. These requirements were presented for the three major applications and for the different populations in relation to these applications.

All groups emphasised the need for a consistent user interface across all applications, as well as appropriate instruction on how to use the interface. Some users felt that training the customers in using any new technology deserved to be given much more attention by service providers.

Elderly Persons

Of the elderly people interviewed, 83% had some form of cash card. Of that group, 50% had never used an ATM (cash dispenser), 10% had tried it once and 40% used them more than once. Of the 40% who used ATMs, 75% were regular users. Of the total group that meant that 58% had never used a cashcard but 71% of them said they would like to.

92% had used public transport; although 46% of those users had used a ticket machine, all were infrequent users and had not used a ticket machine in the last month. 83% had used a public telephone of which 40% had used a card.

Many of this group could see advantages in storing personal emergency medical information on their smart card, as long as this was only done with the individual’s permission.

Physically Disabled

The use of a contactless smart card instead of a key for door entry would have many advantages for those in wheelchairs, those with reduced strength and those with poor manual dexterity. For this group security appears to be a particularly important issue.

Visually Disabled

This group indicated a strong desire for the design of input devices, their location, layout of the terminal and function to be standardised. It should be possible to differentiate cards by touch; this might mean a notch if there is no embossing. They thought that card readers should all accept the cards in the same orientation. Also they would like keypads to provide tactile feedback.

Finding locks and using keys was a problem for some of this group, and they felt that contactless smart cards could have significant benefit for them in this application. Another area in which visually disabled users thought that contactless smart cards could assist them was in turning on audible signals, and increasing the crossing time, at light-controlled pedestrian crossings.

Hearing Disabled

This group wanted all information presented visually in addition to acoustic output. They also wanted all public telephones to have text Telephony capability with the smart card giving access to the keyboard.

Intellectually Disabled

This group would like communication to be by menus which should be based on pictures in combination with spoken text since many people with an intellectual disability cannot read or write. Many of those interviewed said that they had difficulty in remembering a PIN and found it almost impossible to keep it a secret; they expressed a preference for identification by fingerprint.

On an ATM, it was suggested that the terminal should display what the balance in the account would be if the amount requested was withdrawn. On a telephone, they would find it useful to have a card with some telephone numbers pre-programmed.

In the foreseeable future, there are three areas of smart card usage where the customer is expected to operate a self-service terminal - financial transactions (eg a cash dispenser), telecommunications (eg a public telephone), and public transport (eg a ticket selling machine). The following sections concentrate on these examples.

Financial Transactions

Nearly all interviewees had a bank account, and the control group all reported using an ATM regularly and most within the previous week. However of the elderly sample, half never used an ATM and only 38% had used one in the last week. The control group knew significantly more functions available on an ATM than did the elderly and visually disabled groups. None of the control group experienced significant difficulty in using an ATM, in comparison to 86% of the visually disabled, 54% of the lower limb motor disabled and 40% of the upper limb motor disabled.

The visually disabled respondents preferred ATMs outside to inside a bank; this may be because inside a bank there are more likely to be queues which create problems if one cannot see where to join the queue. Another reason may be physical barriers near the ATM which cause problems for visually disabled persons.

The elderly group expressed a desire that the keys should be lighter to operate, the screen should be easier to read and the text should be lined up with the buttons at the side of the screen. In addition they were very concerned about security and would prefer ATMs in a bank lobby rather than in the street.

The visually disabled group would prefer a default service from the ATM (eg a preset amount of cash for a single key-press), large character display option with reduced reflections from extraneous light, better quality print on printouts, raised or indented keys, good quality speech output (possibly through an earpiece for privacy), notch on card for orientation, and a standard order of operations and feedback from the ATM. In addition there was a requirement for a system to help locate the ATM.

The motor disabled group were very concerned with access to ATMs from a wheelchair, but would also like the option of larger characters on the screen, large raised buttons, clear feedback after key-press, and better security.


The technology is already available to alleviate many of the problems faced by people with disabilities in using a public telephone, but only a few telecommunication companies provide the appropriate facilities. The table below illustrates some of the existing problems, but advances in technology will create exciting new solutions as well as some new problems. Many of these new solutions appear likely to be economically viable, and of benefit to all customers, if appropriate marketing is employed.

Up to now people with a hearing impairment have been the most concerned with problems of using a telephone. In the next few years there is likely to be a dramatic increase in the use of visual displays which will cause problems for visually impaired users.

Although mobile telephones have proved a boon for many wheelchair users, the small keypads have been found to be difficult to use by those with poor manual dexterity.

Some public telephones now have the facility for increasing the audio amplification, but smart card technology offers a method of storing the user’s preferred audio frequency response which could make speech significantly more intelligible for many persons with a hearing impairment.

Network messages, such as "all lines busy, please call later", can be a problem for those with a hearing impairment or those who do not understand the language (eg foreign visitors). A smart card could store information on the user’s preference for this information to be presented in text form on a visual display and/or in another language.

Another application for smart card technology is to automate the dialling and logging in to a relay service; this might include automatically setting the text protocols to be compatible. On a public telephone, the smart card might unlock the keyboard for use as a text telephone.

Public Transport

The elderly and people with disabilities often rely on public transport, and are often bewildered by some of the new automated ticket selling machines; for instance, the one on the London Underground has over 300 keys with very small lettering on each key.

There is a trend towards automatic systems for providing information about public transport services, but many of these systems are inaccessible to people with disabilities.

In public transport services, many of the smart card systems are contactless to improve the speed of processing passengers; this is advantageous for many people with disabilities.

Ticket selling machines pose similar problems to ATMs, but they may include many more button and have poor quality visual displays. Many people with disabilities mentioned the need for audio output to guide them through the use of the machine. For non-disabled foreign visitors it might be desirable to offer a number of languages.

With a low floor bus, wheelchair access is usually by the door in the middle of the bus which is not in direct line of sight of the bus driver. A wheelchair user might use a distant contactless card to alert the driver and to trigger the extension of the wheelchair ramp. A similar contactless card could trigger an audio message beside the door giving the destination of the bus for visually disabled passengers.


The advent of multi-function smart cards will necessitate much closer collaboration between financial institutions, telecommunications companies and public transport operators. It would be advantageous for the customers if one result of this collaboration was a greater similarity in user interfaces on self-service terminals. Also it will be necessary for standards to be applied uniformly by all the service providers.

To select a preferred interface, the user could simply press a button or select from a menu on the screen. This is unlikely to find favour with service providers if it significantly increases the time taken to undertake the transaction, but it may be viable for simple operations such as increasing audio amplification on a telephone. For applications such as a cash dispenser, the user’s preferences could be stored on a central computer and implemented as soon as the PIN (personal identification number) has been entered. Storing personal data centrally may give rise to ‘data protection’ concerns.

However another method would be to store the information on the customer’s card. With a magnetic stripe card there is very limited spare capacity for storing this information, but this method has been used successfully for storing the user’s preference for displayed language (eg English or French). A smart card has fewer restrictions on storage capacity so appears to be ideal for this purpose, as long as some international standard is agreed for the coding of this information on the card.

In the ideal world, users would be able to select and store their preferred interface anytime they use the card at a terminal. Practical and security constraints may restrict this choice to being made at the time of issuing the card, or require the assistance of a health professional such as an optometrist or audiologist. It is essential that information is only stored on a card with the consent of the user.

The Saturn project is proposing that the coding allows for either speciific user preferences or a general description of the impairment, and that the coding should be in accordance to ASN.1 notation (ISO 8824 & 8825). It is important that any coding scheme can be extended as and when needed.

Specific user preferences would include text size and colour, avoid certain colour combinations, speech output, sound amplification, visual display of sign language, Braille output, increase time permitted for operation, and remote activation of audible locating signal.

The general description of the impairment would include visual impairment (eg reduced acuity, reduced field of vision, colour blindness), hearing impairment (eg loss of high frequencies), cognitive impairments (eg reduced short-term memory), dexterity problems (eg reduced reach, tremor) and dyslexia.

It is estimated that most people with disabilities would require less than 20 bytes to store their requirements. Standard compression techniques would significantly reduce the amount of memory required.


Many countries are introducing, or considering the introduction of, legislation concerning the rights of people with disabilities. These laws may require service providers to provide interfaces on self-service terminals which are appropriate for the needs of disabled users. The cost of retrofitting such interfaces is likely to many times more than the cost of introducing them when the terminals are installed.


Too often consideration of the training requirements of the general public in the use of new technology has been left until the equipment has been installed. It would be wise to consider training at the beginning of a project to install smart card technology, and it should take into account the training needs of customers who are elderly or have a disability.


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